When I started volunteering at Odd Obsession Movies as a 23-year-old in early 2006, the store was in its first location on Halsted Street, sitting snugly in a basement storefront opposite the Steppenwolf Theatre. I discovered the store by accident before going to a play one evening, and after that, I began stopping in about once a week. I couldn’t resist the lure of movies that, until then, I’d only dreamed of watching: video works by Jean-Luc Godard never released on Region 1 DVD, features by lesser-known directors of the Japanese New Wave, hard-to-find cult classics like Stephanie Rothman’s The Velvet Vampire (1971) and John Byrum’s Inserts (1975), and experimental films by the likes of Andy Warhol, Pat O’Neill, and Rob Tregenza. And then there were all the movies I hadn’t even heard of; I wanted to spend hours in the store just browsing the collection.
As I became a regular customer, I got to know the store’s founder, Brian Chankin. (He was almost always there in those days, as the Halsted location doubled as his home.) We found we had similar tastes. Neither of us gravitated towards mainstream cinema, though we both liked lowbrow as well as highbrow films, and we were especially drawn to movies that fused the two. Brian had named the store after a wacky widescreen comedy about voyeurism made by renowned Japanese auteur Kon Ichikawa in 1959; he also liked figures like Ken Russell, Brian De Palma, and Andrzej Żuławski, directors who obliterated distinctions between respectful and disrespectful art. I liked swapping movie recommendations with Brian, who was and still is a top-notch conversationalist. Indeed many of my favorite memories of Odd Obsession—which announced last week it was shutting down after 16 years—involve talking with Brian and a few strangers, typically about movies and always with enthusiasm.
I admired Brian’s dedication and ambition right away. Here was someone not much older than me whose curiosity about cinema drove him to amass thousands of videocassettes and DVDs, then to open a rental store where he could share this collection with others. (Later on, Brian would bring a similar autodidactic zeal to being a reggae DJ and selling Ghanaian movie posters.) His appetite for movies was infectious. Within months of opening the store in 2004, Brian had attracted customers who, like me, liked being there so much they just started shelving DVD cases and ringing up customers. The stable of volunteers that formed at Odd Obsession shared in its mission to spread the love of movies; in exchange for a few hours of easy clerical work, we got to share our tastes with customers and learn from them and each other. We also impacted the store’s development in other ways, such as recommending titles to add to the collection or naming a section in the rental area.
One particular volunteer expanded my curiosity about film history to areas I never thought I’d go. I met Joe Rubin around the time I started volunteering. Joe was still in his teens, but he’d already attracted national attention for his knowledge of exploitation and hard-core movies of the late-60s through the mid-80s. He was instrumental in building the store’s collection; with his input Odd Obsession cultivated a trove of rare drive-in horror movies, juvenile delinquent dramas, ambitious hard-core features, and the occasional films that managed to combine several of these subgenres. Joe appreciated all of this with a seriousness I’d previously reserved for art cinema alone; his influence could be felt in Odd Obsession’s layout. Have there been any other video stores that organized their porn films by director? Joe taught me to recognize the creative visions of people working with the least reputable material, people like Chuck Vincent and Doris Wishman. Joe now runs the DVD label Vinegar Syndrome, which restores and rereleases vintage exploitation fare; it’s a bit like everyone can sample Odd Obsession’s exploitation section now.
I made other great friends through the store, whether customers or fellow volunteers. The list would be too long to present in full here, but deserving special mention is Darnell Witt, who started a free cine club at his loft showing rare movies, many rented from Odd Obsession, around the time I started volunteering at the store. In 2007 several people who attended these screenings started the website Cine-File.info (now CineFile.info), where I first started writing about movies and where I continue to contribute today. A lot of the writing that appeared on the site in its early days feels like it grew out of conversations that happened at the store; even though Brian never contributed, I feel like he influenced the site’s policy of not publishing negative reviews. The attitude fostered by Odd Obsession was inclusive—André Bazin’s dictum “All films are created equal” could have served as the store’s motto.
Instead the words hanging in the doorway at the Halsted location were “This is not a porn store.” Odd Obsession attracted cinephiles, but it attracted plenty of weirdos as well. On one of my first days behind the counter, a middle-aged man walked in and asked if he could find “any porn, but, like, with Frankenstein.” After Brian answered that he could (the movie was The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein, directed by Jess Franco in 1972), the customer followed up by asking whether there was “any porn, but, like, with vampires and they’re all lesbians.” (The lucky customer also left that day with Vampyros Lesbos, directed by Jess Franco in 1971.) You never knew who would come in to Odd Obsession, which was an added bonus of volunteering there.
Brian moved Odd Obsession to Bucktown in the late 2000s, first to a spot next to Uprise Skateshop, then to a slightly smaller storefront a few doors north on Milwaukee Avenue. The clientele became less seedy, but the store remained colorful. The 1822 N. Milwaukee location had high ceilings, and Brian hung art and movie posters all over the plentiful wall space. One of Brian’s cats, Precious, began to live in the store; her curmudgeonly attitude endeared her to customers, even though she hissed at babies and occasionally shat in the aisles. At some point the merry video makers from Everything Is Terrible! started using the front of the store as a workspace, while the large garage-cum-storage space in the back got used as the set of at least a few amateur short films, one of them being a music video for my old band. When Brian began selling hand-painted movie posters from Ghana, he’d always display some around the rentals.
I stopped volunteering regularly a couple years before Odd Obsession moved to its third and final location. Other volunteers came and went, other friendships formed. I continued to stop in often after I began to write for the Reader full-time; there was always some movie I needed to watch for research that I couldn’t find anywhere else. I also kept up the habit when I entered grad school and then my current career as a special education teacher; by that point, Odd Obsession was simply a hub in my personal route of the city, a place where I could catch up with a friend or find something interesting to watch after a long week at work. I’m sad that I won’t get to visit it again after our current period of quarantine ends. Other people have expounded on what we lose when we lose video stores—namely, the pleasure of browsing a physical collection and the interpersonal connection that comes with swapping movie recommendations—so I don’t need to do so again. But something distinct seems to be leaving Chicago with the closure of Odd Obsession Movies, a certain omnivorous aestheticism that brings people together. v